Monthly Archives: December 2011

Healthcare Breach Prevention & Email Encryption – Apparently Not a High Priority

The Second Annual Benchmark Study on Patient Privacy & Data Security was just released by Ponemon Institute, a privacy and security research firm based in Traverse City, Mich. Some of the findings are surprising, if not shocking given the attention and legislation put in place to deal with this topic. Lip service? One is really left to wonder.

The Data

When looking at the data, let’s also keep in mind that the survey targeted data protection professionals, with 43% of respondents holding the title of chief security officer, chief information security officer, chief information officer, chief privacy officer or chief compliance officer. Additionally, the sample was skewed toward larger healthcare organizations, “excluding the plethora of very small provider organizations, including local clinics and medical practitioners,” the report said. There’s a lot of interesting (and highly disturbing) data in the report, but I’ll focus on only a few highlights according to healthcare organizations responding to the survey: 1.  96% have had at least one data breach in the past 24 months. On average organizations have had 4 data breach incidents during the past two years. Breaches increased 32% from the previous year. (96%?  Does that not sound a lot like 100%?) 2.  The top 3 causes for a data breach are:
  1. lost or stolen computing devices
  2. third-party snafu
  3. unintentional employee action.
Even more troubling is the data in regards to what appears to be the prevailing and unsettling mind-set surrounding security as a priority. 3.  Staff do not understand the importance of patient data protection
  1. 66% agree medical billing personnel do not understand the importance of patient data protection
  2. 58% say IT personnel do not understand its importance
  3. In contrast, 58% say administrative personnel do understand the importance of protecting patient data.
4.  Protecting patient data and privacy is not a priority for healthcare organizations
  1. Only  29% of respondents agree that the prevention of unauthorized access to patient  data and loss or theft of such data is a priority in their organizations
  2. Less than one-fourth (23%) said their organization has “encryption solutions  installed.”

Email Encryption – a minimum in healthcare prevention for breach of patient data and privacy

Let’s focus for a moment on the last piece of data shown in 4(2) above. Less than one-fourth (23%) said their organization has “encryption solutions  installed.”  This also means that healthcare organizations are not using email encryption (secure email) to communicate patient information securely. Which also ties into 3rd party snafus as one of the top reasons for patient breaches. It seems that email encryption and secure communication should be at the top of the priority list as one of the first steps in securing patient information. The report cites the following types of compromised patient data:
  • Medical file
  • Billing and insurance record
  • Scheduling details
  • Prescription details
  • Payment details
  • Monthly statements
While the report does not provide details about how this information was intercepted, I think it’s a pretty good guess that the breaches were not related to the use of encryption technology. Using phone, unsecured email, fax, couriers, mail, or in-person visits to transfer or share private patient information is not secure and can easily be intercepted. At the very least, healthcare organizations must adopt email encryption to communicate medical, insurance, scheduling and billing statements information with patients and other healthcare organizations.  Email encryption is well positioned to become the way of the future in healthcare communication, and it has the teeth to back up that privilege since it also addresses regulatory compliance with HIPPA and other technical security safeguard standards.  Its adoption must become as routine and pervasive as any other fundamental business practice in the healthcare industry. 51% named inadequate budgets for privacy and security as the top weakness in their healthcare organization’s security program.  Encrypted email is also a highly efficient and cost effective way to prevent patient privacy and data leaks – as well as providing enhanced patient services.  For example, sending monthly e-statements by secure email to patients and other healthcare providers is associated with significant cost savings, efficiencies, as well as the added bonus of a reduced environmental footprint. If email encryption were adopted by the surveyed organizations today, the survey results would show significant improvements next year.  Guaranteed. Ariane Laird works with Email2.  

Cyber-attacked prestigious Bay Street law firms claim securing client confidentiality is a priority. What about email?

Last night, the CBC reported on foreign hackers who launched a massive attack on Canadian government computers last fall, also broke into the data systems of prominent Bay Street law firms to get insider information on an attempted $38-billion corporate takeover of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan. No surprise, statements issued by the legal firms were predictable and generic.  But what struck me was that the issued statements included something that goes like this:  “We take our obligations of confidentiality to our clients very seriously”. Following on to my blog entry in November, it sure doesn’t feel that way. The medium most used by law firms to communicate with their clients is email.  I have and continue to use lawyers extensively for personal and corporate representation, including employment lawyers for the HR side of my life.  Not once has a law firm ever used email encryption or secure email to communicate with me.  Not only does the body of the email contain sensitive strategy conversations, but there are also numerous draft documents that are transferred back and forth as unsecured email file attachments. Now I will concede that the information I am dealing with, such as personal family law matters or employee terminations are likely not as sexy or hack-worthy as the Potash deal.  But how do I know that this information is not being intercepted and reviewed?  Who is going to fess up if this happens?  It may be happening all the time and I just don’t know about it – and never will. Email is a much easier target for attacks then any client file saved behind a legal firm’s firewall. Email leaves the relative safety of the legal firm and travels into the world ‘wild’ web through various passages and nodes before it gets to its final destination.  It can be intercepted at any time through its zig zagged and stopped-over journeys through cyberspace. What we do trust is the technology used for internet banking to communicate and process the ultimate in high-risk and sensitive transactions because the protocol used to transfer information is as safe as we can get it. The transmission is protected by an end-to-end SSL pipe that cannot be intercepted.  When we see that additional ‘s’ in https:// in our browser, we are assured that it’s SSL protected – such as when we access internet banking or process a credit card transaction on line. Without that ‘s’, the information submitted is simply not secure. It seems to make sense that we (clients) should be expecting law firms (and government) to begin taking client confidentiality as seriously as banks do, by adopting the same type of security technology used by banking to secure email communication with clients.  After all, whose responsibility is it to safeguard my (the client) confidential and ultra-sensitive information – the law firm or the client?  Addressing compliance and the law is also clear in echoing my feelings about this important topic.  It’s unequivocally the legal firm’s responsibility. It really feels like it’s time for legal firms to put the ‘confidential’ back into ’priviledged and confidential’ for their clients.  Technology exists to help them do just that. Join the discussion. Agree or disagree? Ariane Laird works with Email2. Email2 provides straightforward secure email encryption solutions and data leak prevention for government and law firms that uses the same security technology as internet banking. Email2 enables professional services organizations to securely send, receive, track and automate delivery of confidential email and large attachments outside the organization – without requiring staff or recipients to change their existing email.